Seattle’s ordinance allowing garbage collectors to look through people’s trash — to make sure food scraps aren’t going into the garbage — was declared “unconstitutional and void” Wednesday.
It is in Seattle that the constitutionality of the city checking what was in that teriyaki carton in your garbage became a court case.
On Wednesday, King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus ruled that what was in that carton stays private.
She ruled that the city’s ordinance allowing garbage collectors to look through people’s trash — to make sure food scraps aren’t going into the garbage — was “unconstitutional and void.”
She entered an injunction against its enforcement.
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“I’m thrilled as can be,” said Ethan Blevins, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of eight Seattle residents.
The foundation describes itself as a watchdog that litigates for “limited government, property rights, and individual rights.”
Blevins said that during oral arguments, it appeared that Andrus “was skeptical this program could be enforced in any way except through privacy violations. We have been vindicated.”
Seattle Public Utilities issued a statement Thursday that said, “We will study the ruling and determine what changes we need to make in the program and the city ordinance.”
Andy Ryan, spokesman for the agency, said, “We have never been tearing garbage cans apart. It comes down to recalibrating how much you can look.”
The utility said the judge’s ruling “recognizes the city’s ability to regulate what goes into trash cans to address conservation and safety needs.”
The ruling concerned just how much garbage collectors could look without invading the privacy of customers.
SPU says garbage cans with more than 10 percent by volume of food waste would be tagged, and that this could be done by “visual inspection.”
“It wasn’t a precise thing by any means,” said Ryan. “The inspectors were eyeballing cans for visual signs like chicken parts. If it led them to believe it was more than 10 percent of content, he’d leave a note.”
The judge wrote in her decision, “The city could not explain how inspectors can compute the 10 percent limit without searching through a resident’s garbage bags.”
City residents have long been asked to place food scraps in the same bins as their yard waste. That way they would be composted instead of ending up in a landfill.
But starting in January 2015, they were told that not complying would carry a $1 fine for single-family homes and $50 for businesses and multifamily dwellings. Mayor Ed Murray said he was postponing the fines because cooperation was so widespread.
It wasn’t the fines that the lawsuit was about.
Says Sally Oljar, a web developer and one of the eight individuals who filed the lawsuit, “The compost program was not the issue. This was carrying a good idea too far.”
She remembers a TV crew coming to the Phinney Ridge home in which she lives with her husband, Steve Davies, an IT administrator, after the lawsuit was filed in July 2015.
“(The TV reporter was) going through my garbage and standing there, saying, ‘You eat this and drink this.’ ‘Oh, I see you bought this.’ I was struck by that. The city has no right to know what I eat and drink. You can get all this information about people from their garbage.”
Seattle’s trash ordinance certainly resulted in headlines around the country such as:
“Seattle is now publicly shaming people for putting food in their trash bins.”
“In Seattle, compost your food scraps — or else.”
“Seattle now paying ‘Secret Trash Police’ with tax money to inspect residents’ garbage …”